The island council of Vilufushi in the south-central Thaa atoll has disputed the government’s claim of providing permanent shelter for families displaced by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Speaking at a ceremony held Monday night to mark the 12th anniversary of the tsunami, Defence Minister Adam Shareef Umar said the current administration has completed providing housing for families who lost their homes in the worst natural disaster in recorded Maldivian history.
“Up until yesterday, many people affected by the tsunami were living in difficult conditions. But as we hold this ceremony today, we must note that those people and especially those who lost their homes have been provided with permanent shelter by President [Abdulla] Yameen’s government,” he said.
The tsunami affected nearly a third of the Maldives’ population of 300,000, leaving 82 people dead and 26 missing and presumed dead. Some 21,663 people were displaced after a quarter of inhabited islands were damaged and 14 islands were completely evacuated.
Challenging the defence minister’s claim, Ibrahim Shafiu, the president of the Vilufushi island council, said several families have yet to receive permanent shelter.
“These people are eligible to receive shelter under the criteria for beneficiaries of the disaster relief. But there are over 40 families who still haven’t got it,” he told the Maldives Independent.
Vilufushi was completely destroyed by the tsunami and its 1,900 people were relocated to the nearby island of Buruni. The islanders moved back after the British Red Cross completed construction of 250 new homes in August 2009 following a land reclamation project.
The islands of Madifushi in Meemu atoll, Kadholhudhoo in Raa atoll, and Gemendhoo in Dhaal atoll were also depopulated by the tsunami. The islanders were later relocated to Alif Dhaal Maamigili, Raa Dhuvafaru, and Dhaal Kudahuvadhoo.
In April this year, the government handed over a further 309 newly built housing units in Vilufushi to the displaced families.
However, Shafiu said 40 displaced families are still living with relatives.
“Even among those who did get shelter, the houses made for them are much smaller than the homes they were living in. Up to three families are living in one house now,” he said.
Shafiu noted that a project to build 100 more houses was initiated in late 2013 by the previous administration.
“The government said then that tsunami victims would be given priority. But the project stopped halfway and it’s now left unfinished. It has been several months since the contractors left the island,” the council president said.
However, the National Disaster Management Centre – which operates under the defence ministry – insists that all the families displaced by the tsunami are now living in new homes.
“All the projects to shelter displaced tsunami victims have been completed now. We only have information about disaster shelter, other housing projects concerns ministries,” said NDMC Spokesman Hisaan Hussain.
Despite building disaster management capacity since 2004, Hisaan acknowledged that the Maldives would find it difficult to deal with a crisis of similar proportions without foreign assistance and the financial help of donor nations.
The NDMC is in the process of drafting a national emergency response plan, he added.
“The tsunami was a big disaster. It would be hard to even imagine what kind of an impact it would have on a country like ours,” he said.
“You can’t know how big it would be, and the way our islands are formed geographically, the only place to evacuate everyone would be the sea. But compared to 2004, we are much more prepared.”
He noted that the NDMC has also conducted training and awareness raising programmes as well as risk assessments in more than 50 islands.
Since 2005, the government has marked December 26 as the National Day of Unity in remembrance of the communal spirit and solidarity shown by Maldivians in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by the tsunami.
In his message to the nation on Unity Day, President Yameen urged the public “to put aside differences that would hinder progress and to put national well-being first.”
According to the president’s office, Yameen described the “solidarity, love and compassion that was displayed by Maldivians during the catastrophe as remarkable, and emphasised that learning lesson from the disaster and moving ahead with solidarity was a national duty.”
Former President Mohamed Nasheed – who is among several opposition leaders and former top government officials jailed or exiled during Yameen’s three-year reign – used the occasion to underscore the fragility of the Maldives’ natural environment.
2004 Tsunami reminded us of our vulnerabilities. Reefs are crucial adaptation systems & we must use soft solutions to protect them.
— Mohamed Nasheed (@MohamedNasheed) December 26, 2016
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was in office battling a pro-democracy movement at the time, said on Twitter: “During the tsunami of 26 Dec 2004 Maldivians showed unparalleled solidarity that provided relief to all.”
The leader of the divided ruling party urged the public to take the lessons of the 2004 tsunami to heart.
“As we remember such a day, we must learn lessons from the nationalist spirit Maldivians showed then. I call on all Maldivians to learn from that and to face the serious problems facing our country today together and with unity,” he appealed in a statement.